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GDR anti-Semitism

October 23, 2010

Anti-Semitism in communist East Germany? "We didn't have any of that" is the title of a traveling exhibition on the long-taboo topic of how badly Jews continued to be treated after World War II in the GDR.

The site of the exhibition in Prora
The show was held in an old Nazi leisure centerImage: DW

When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was formed after World War II its communist system was meant to be a new beginning. Everyone was supposed to be equal, stripped of their noble histories or even their shameful pasts.

There was no debate about the Holocaust or what certain people had done or why and that led to a certain level of persistent anti-Semitism, according to organizers of an exhibition that looks at discrimination against Jews in the GDR.

But many eastern Germans still find it hard to believe that anti-Semitism was given any room at all in a state that called itself anti-fascist.

A display at the "We didn't have any of that" exhibition
The exhibition carefully details the anti-Semitism of the GDRImage: DW

The traveling exhibition, organized by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, seeks to explain to visitors how persecution, some of it state-sponsored, remained a part of life for Jews in the GDR. Currently showing in the Baltic seaside resort of Prora, on the island of Ruegen, the exhibition’s name - "We didn't have any of that" - refers to the taboo around the topic.

"The idea that a state ideology would automatically prevent people from hating others is kind of ridiculous," said Annetta Kahane, head of the organizing foundation. "The rulers in the East said everyone was excused for what happened (during the Nazi era) and nobody would do anything wrong again and we could start building our communist state."

Through its exhibits, the show demonstrates how anti-Semitic the GDR really was. There were anti-Jewish trials and communist party purges in the 1950s and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. The government openly opposed Israel, even allowing Palestinian terror groups to train in East Germany.

Kids track down the truth

The information presented in the exhibition was collected by school children who interviewed local residents. The idea was that asking children to gather information that would come across as less accusatory and provide the young people a unique history lesson.

"Just imagine if I would have gone there," said Heike Radvan, also with the foundation. "Even though I myself hail from the East, it wouldn't have worked out. People wouldn't have talked to me."

In the town of Hagenow, the children had trouble figuring out what had happened to the Jewish cemetery. It took them four months, Radvan said, but then they found one resident who knew.

"The tombstones were very heavy," the man told them. "They came in handy when we were laying the foundations of a garage."

Dangerous stereotypes

Some typical stereotypes about Jewish people may have also further provoked the anti-Semitism of the communist leadership, according to Kahane.

"There were some characteristics projected on to the Jews that didn't go very well with the idea of communism," she said. "Jews were blamed for being too capitalist: the bank managers, the guys with the money.”

They were also seen as being dishonest, traitorous or arrogant, she added.

“Jews were seen as cosmopolitan figures. And cosmopolitanism was the opposite of what the rulers wanted."

A difficult history to accept

"We didn't have any of that!" echoed some of the visitors to the exhibition. "Here's just another example of GDR-bashing," one wrote in the exhibition guestbook. "As a former GDR citizen, I find such accusations unacceptable," wrote another. "This exhibition doesn't add anything valuable to people's knowledge."

Another visitor, however, did find the exhibition informative. "I think it's very good to see this topic dealt with in an exhibition," she said. "I hadn't seen any coverage about this before."

Susanna Misgajski, a local historian from Prora, said that having the project displayed in her corner of Germany was worth it and that the local population seemed very interested in the topic.

A beach on the island of Ruegen
Even the idyllic island of Ruegen saw anti-Semitism during the GDRImage: Fotolia/BildPix.de

Not, however, because the area didn't experience its own anti-Semitism during the GDR era, Misgajski said.

Many private hotel owners along the Baltic coast lost their property during a government campaign called "Aktion Rose" and many of them were imprisoned, she explained.

One Jewish owner endured repeated anti-Semitic propaganda at the hands of the judge during a show trial and was handed down a much longer prison term than the non-Jewish victims of the expropriation campaign, she added.

The exhibition, which began in 2007, is now set to move on to its next home. Plans are currently taking shape to take it to the United States in 2012.

Author: Hardy Graupner / hf
Editor: Kyle James